Culture with Colin D. Ellis
“Great leadership provides the foundation for successful project management.”

It’s a quote from Colin D. Ellis’s first book, The Conscious Leader: How to Create a Culture of Success for Your Projects, your team and yourself, that speaks volumes about how project managers are set up to succeed...or fail. It also speaks to the culture of an organization, a team, and the work individuals can do to contribute to and shape that culture. In this interview, Brett Harned speaks with Colin about:

  • How culture is formed
  • How individuals can impact culture—in both positive and negative ways
  • How to making hiring decisions when “cultural fit” is part of your criteria
  • How to work on culture when you’ve got limited time to focus on it

Links and resources mentioned in this episode

About our guest


Colin D. Ellis
Award-winning keynote speaker and culture change specialist

Colin D. Ellis is an award-winning international speaker, renowned project leadership expert and best-selling author who works with organizations around the world to help them build capability that's fit for the future of work.

Able to draw on more than 20 years of public and private sector project leadership in the UK, New Zealand and Australia, Colin peppers his presentations with anecdotes, statistics, practical insights and plenty of humor to ensure that audiences are engaged and laughing!

He gets people talking through his emphasis on people being the best version of themselves and creating teams they can be proud of.

Colin is originally from Liverpool in the UK and now lives in Melbourne, Australia, where he is known for his snappy dressing and love of karaoke.

Website: www.colindellis.com
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/colindellis
Twitter: @colindellis
Instagram: @colindellis

Episode Transcript


Brett Harned:       Hi, and welcome back to Time Limit. I'm Brett Harned and I'm the Director of Education at TeamGantt. If you've listened to Time Limit in the past, you've probably heard my voice. I'm really excited to bring the show back with a new format. Starting with this episode, I'll be interviewing leaders and experts about topics ranging from project management and leadership to productivity and everything in between.

We recognize that we all have limits on the time we can spend on our work, so we'll focus on topics that impact that time, and even ask interviewees to provide real time tips. This is how we get our competitive edge in business. It's absolutely critical that, as leaders and managers, we learn how to set our teams up for success. After all, how we use our limited time can be the difference between success and failure. I hope you enjoy the new format. Please get in touch with me at brett@teamgantt.com if you have any questions or would even like to be on the show.

All right, let's talk about this episode. I recently sat down with Colin D. Ellis who is an award-winning international speaker, author of The Conscious Leader and a forthcoming book called The Project Book: The Complete Guide to Delivering Consistently Great Projects. Colin also helps organizations and individuals change the way they get things done. I personally read his first book and met him at the Digital PM Summit, and immediately knew I wanted to get him on the podcast to have a conversation about culture, and how it plays out in organizations, on teams, and honestly how project managers can impact it. I really enjoyed the conversation with Colin and hope he'll come back to Time Limit really soon. Check it out.

Brett Harned:       Hello and welcome our guest this week, our guest is Colin Ellis. Colin, how are you doing?

Colin D. Ellis:     I'm really good, Brett. Thank you.

Brett Harned:       Great, thanks so much for coming on the podcast today. Really do appreciate it. I've been following your work for a good amount of time now. It sounds a little bit creepy, but it's true. I've also had the privilege to meet you last September at the Digital PM Summit where you delivered an amazing keynote titled Digital Transformation Starts With You. I also just read your book The Conscious Project Leader, and I'm really looking forward to talking to you about leadership and culture and lots of things kind of within that. Should we jump in?

Colin D. Ellis:     Let's do it, let's do it.

Brett Harned:       Great. So I'm gonna take it from the top. In the beginning of your book you say, “Great leadership provides the foundation for successful project management,” and I couldn't agree with you more. I see a lot of people in project management roles who end up feeling like they're in the wrong job, or even the wrong company, because they're not supported by leadership. I'm wondering, why do you think that happens?

Colin D. Ellis:     There's a couple of reasons, Brett. Firstly is I still don't think that, certainly within organizations, senior managers ... I'm tempted not to call them leaders here, I think leadership is one of those things that people should aspire to be. There are very few people that I've met who are what I would consider leaders ... They don't really understand the value of project management.

Colin D. Ellis:     We're seeing this right now with the spread of agile. For those of us who are old enough to remember, we had exactly the same with [inaudible 00:03:17] and PMBOK in the early 2000s where senior managers really can't be bothered to fully understand project management and the value that good project management can offer. So what they do is they resort to implementing the latest method of choice, it just happens to be agile. Now, that's not to say there's not some good stuff in the methods, there is, but the fact of the matter is projects are still about people first.

Colin D. Ellis:     If people don't understand the value of project management, then it's hard for them to value the people in those roles. One of the things I hear a lot is, "Oh, my sponsor doesn't give me time to plan, what should I do?" My answer is always to not do the project, because that's your job to do that.

Colin D. Ellis:     Project management is one of those things that people talk a lot about, I hear it all the time in airport lounges and cafes, all the time, and I still think very few managers within organizations understand what it means. But it's chicken and egg, Brett, because they've never seen it done really, really well, so consequently they never invest in it going forward.

Brett Harned:       Yeah, I totally agree with you. Thinking back on my career, I think the reason I was able to break out and go on my own and find a job like the one I have now at TeamGantt is because I actually had that leader, that agency owner, who truly believed in project management and believed that I could do a good job with it. But thinking back, there are other roles that I had where I wasn't as respected, and it wasn't just me as a person, it was the role wasn't respected as much as well.

Brett Harned:       So how do you think someone can overcome the feeling of not feeling that their role is valued, or feeling that they're not respected and that they're not able to do a good job because of it? How can I overcome that feeling?

Colin D. Ellis:     I think self-awareness is key for a start here, Brett, because I think there's quite a lot of arrogance in our profession. People go, they do a course, they get a badge, and they're like, “Hey, look at me, I'm a project manager,” and we've kind of had this pandemic, almost, of certification a few years back, where our market is flooded with people who've got the right qualifications but not necessarily the right skills. So I think people have got to ask themselves, “Am I speaking in the right way, am I making project management easy to understand, am I being the best version of myself, am I breaking it down such that somebody understands what needs to be done here?”

Colin D. Ellis:     I think quite often the role of a project manager isn't valued because people think it's a process to follow, when it's not. It's a role model, it's someone who can ... I often talk about project managers being the future of organizations, and I think that you've gotta really be the best version of yourself and show other people what good leadership looks like. And then you have to speak very calmly and empathetically about what's the job of a project manager, what do you do, what's expected of the role?

Colin D. Ellis:     Ultimately it's about mitigating risk, or protecting reputation, or delivering some kind of outcome to take the business forward. But we don't talk about it in those terms, we talk about very practically, “I chair this meeting, I update the schedule,” which are all important facets, but they don't really sell the value of the role.

Brett Harned:       Yeah, I agree. I also think a lot of it, and I think you alluded to this, it has to do with your ability to build relationships and connect with people. I think as soon as you can show that you not only understand the goals of your organization, or even the team that you're working on or project that you're working on ...

Brett Harned:       The minute that you can show that you've built the relationships, you understand how things work, things start to open up. People start to value you as an individual, and then they start to look at the things that you do because you do them well for whatever reason. And then that starts to create a better name for the role that you're in.

Brett Harned:       Not that that makes it easier, right? But I do think that's part of it, I think what you're saying is it's a very personal role. Soft skills are important, you can't just take what you read from a book and do well in this role.

Colin D. Ellis:     Yeah, 100%, totally agree with that statement. And I talk about the theory as being very, very important, but it pales into insignificance against those soft skills that you need. For any project manager, whatever discipline, wherever you are in the world, it's important that you understand that you're in the relationship-building and communication business. That's what you do, you create connection.

Colin D. Ellis:     I had somebody at a conference say, “Well, I'm an introvert, what would be your recommendation?” I'm like ... The inference there is that introverts aren't good at building relationships. I've got a load of good introvert friends. We all do our best work on the edge of uncomfortable, so you have to put yourself in situations where you're learning by doing the difficult stuff.

Colin D. Ellis:     But the soft skills are absolutely key, so being empathetic, knowing how to drive for success is so important. But these things aren't talked about in the textbooks, Brett, and I liken some project managers to university students. They finish university, they get in the working world, and they're like, “Hey, no one told us about this stuff.” It's the same with project management courses, they're like, “Hey, no one wants to follow the process.”

Colin D. Ellis:     But yeah, I couldn't agree more, those soft skills, those relationship building, it's so, so key, particularly when it comes to team building.

Brett Harned:       Right. One of the reasons I wanted to have you on the podcast is to talk about culture, because I think you've got really interesting opinions on this. But before we talk about culture, I kind of want to define it for the audience as well. I come from a more digital background, meaning I worked in a lot of digital agencies, startup companies, tech companies, where people tend to confuse culture with benefits.

Brett Harned:       “I have a foosball table and there's free beer in the office. That's our culture.” No, that's not culture, right? Those things might impact the culture, but they don't make the culture. So I'm curious, Colin, how do you define culture?

Colin D. Ellis:     Yeah, that's so true that those things have come to be known as culture. “Hey, we got a table tennis table, we're just not allowed to play on it.” Culture is the sum of everybody, and I think that's key for anybody to understand, Brett. It's the sum of everyone's attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, traditions, and skills, and everybody's got a role to play in culture.

Colin D. Ellis:     Typically, we talk of culture as the way that we do things around here, and the way that things get done wherever you are, whichever size of the organization, it's the sum of everybody within it. All of the good stuff, and all of the bad stuff too.

Brett Harned:       Mm-hmm (affirmative). So I tend to think of culture in two avenues, tell me if this makes sense. There's the company, or the organizational culture, and then there's the team culture. I think one impacts the other, meaning the organizational culture can sometimes impact the team culture, but I've been in those magical instances where a team just jells, and they succeed and do really well. So I'm curious if you agree with that, that there are two tracks per se in culture. Or do you think about it in a different way?

Colin D. Ellis:     There are many different cultures, Brett. An organization's culture is made up of the different subcultures within it. That might be a specific digital team, and then there might be a project within that digital team. And one of the things that I always urge project managers to do is to create the very best culture, to create the very best team.

Colin D. Ellis:     Because what happens, and I know from experience because this is what I used to do, is people look at you and go, “What, what are you guys doing over there?” Because everyone's having fun, you're getting the job done, all of this visual stuff. Why I talk about culture so much is I think that certainly projects are missing a trick in not doing that, in not creating this awesome subculture that then contributes to the overall organizational culture.

Colin D. Ellis:     When projects are done well, not only do they deliver outcomes from which the organization can benefit in some way or other, Brett, but also you should add to the organization's culture, you should be doing something differently to take the organization forward. And you see that, you've been part of it too, when you get a project right, people talk about it. They're like, “Remember that X, Y, Z project? Wasn't that awesome?” By default, it adds to the culture. By the same token, if you get something really wrong, the same is true. “Oh my god, that SAP implementation, that put us back three years.” Again, it adds to the culture but in a negative way.

Colin D. Ellis:     So an organization culture is made up of all of these different subcultures, which is why you can't bring a firm of consultants in at the top level with the senior managers and go, “Right, let's define this culture thing.” It just doesn't work, because by the time it gets down to the different layers people are like, “Yeah, well I didn't get a say, so that's not my culture.”

Brett Harned:       Interesting, yeah, can mean something different to everyone. In some ways a company does have a vision, many companies might try to explain or describe what their culture is, but what you're saying is, on a day-to-day basis, it really just depends on what people are doing and how they're impacting the culture, the types of things that they're doing internally as teams.

Colin D. Ellis:     Yeah, that's right. Netflix is often held up as this great example of what good culture looks like, but you have to be pretty resilient to work in the Netflix culture. You have people who are desperate to work there, they get in, they're like, “Hey, someone just got sacked.” Well yeah, that's what happens in these high-performance cultures.

Colin D. Ellis:     But those kind of cultures also bring out the worst in people. We had the head of communications who got fired last year for racism. It can mean different things to different people at different times, and it's hard work maintaining what I call a vibrant culture.

Brett Harned:       Definitely. On that note, what are some of the qualities you find most in the teams with a really positive culture?

Colin D. Ellis:     Positive cultures or vibrant cultures, in vibrant cultures what you get, Brett, are people who are highly engaged in the work. They know what they've gotta do, and they wanna do it, and they're high in emotional intelligence. So they understand what it means to be the best version of themselves.

Colin D. Ellis:     What I see is vision for whatever it is that they're doing, and vision, you have an organization vision, but just as you have different subcultures you have a vision at a team level, a vision at a project level. And they have an agreed set of behaviors that they stick to, which is so, so important. I think we forget about this within our team cultures, so we're not able to hold each other to account. Always there's a fear for difficult conversations because we haven't agreed a set of behaviors.

Colin D. Ellis:     And we've got some culture principles, some things that we agree at the start that we then live by throughout the project. With that comes celebrating success, it comes tough conversations, it comes hitting the milestones, you've gotta get it done, you've gotta get the job done. And you really push each other to succeed to the point where, as I mentioned before, people are just talking about it. It becomes a high-performance culture because you took the time at the start to define what it looks like, and then as a team you hold that all the way through.

Brett Harned:       Absolutely. I love what you said there, basically you've gotta get the work done. Getting the work done and being successful is what starts to build a positive culture. Do you think that there are any things specifically that a project manager can do to build and foster a positive team culture?

Colin D. Ellis:     You know, Brett, I talk about this on stage a lot, and I think it's probably the question that people ask me most afterwards. Because I think project managers should be masters at team building. I talked about we're in the relationship-building and communication business, we should create the best teams, and in order to do that you have to take time out at the start of the project, before we start planning. It doesn't matter whether you're doing a two-week project or a two-year project, although we don't do too many of those these days. You have to take time out at the very start to actually build the team.

Colin D. Ellis:     But none of this is in any of the textbooks, it's the dying art of project management, of building teams. I was fortunate to speak with Don Price, Don Price is the Work Futurist at Atlassian, before Christmas, and we had a great chat about teams and about the work that Atlassian did, Atlassian are a software company, about making sure that the people know how to create teams and be a good team member. I just don't see that very often in organizations.

Colin D. Ellis:     In the work that I did, the programs that I do, half a day is spent on self-awareness, and the rest of the time is on showing people how to create teams. Because what I find is they generally know how to manage risk and do a work breakdown structure, but not actually build a team, which is the most important thing.

Brett Harned:       I wanna get back to the building a team thing, but I also kind of wanna ask the opposite of my last question, the positive team vibes. But then there's also the opposite. I know I've been in situations where morale on a team is really low, becomes an issue, team culture becomes negative for whatever reason, and I'm curious about how that gets remedied, and more specifically if you think the project manager should be responsible for trying to correct some of those cultural issues.

Colin D. Ellis:     Yeah, definitely they should be responsible, Brett, that's the first thing. They should because it's really their job, they're responsible for making sure that the environment exists for good people to do great work, so they're definitely responsible. Some of those signs, that silence, gosh, I used to hate that, when you walk into a room and it was completely and utterly silent, you're like, “Oh my gosh, it's like a library in here.”

Colin D. Ellis:     I do think that some of the biggest opportunities that project managers have is to turn around that kind of environment. I was asked at a conference in the U.S. in October, someone said to me, “I've been given a bunch of people that nobody wants.” I was like, “Yeah, that's gonna happen, right?” He's like, “Why have I got these?” I was like, “That's gonna happen.” He's like, “But what should I do?” I was like, “Well, the reason that nobody wants them is that no one's ever created a great environment and then really driven them towards success. That's your opportunity here, is to be able to do that.”

Colin D. Ellis:     And what you do is you sit down with everyone, you start out the conversation, and you talk about what's worked well in the past, what hasn't. You talk about what's everyone's preferred working style, you've got some introverts, some extroverts. And what you have to do is to really create something that everyone can feel a part of, which can be quite daunting when you've never done a program that talks about how you do that.

Colin D. Ellis:     This is where ... There's this big gap that I see in certification and practicalities of project management. Those things where it's quiet, where you've got poor behaviors, I don't like silent objectors, people don't like talking, so you've gotta bring people into the conversation. But I think key to that is setting expectations really, really well. Is everybody understanding exactly what's expected of them, what they've gotta deliver?

Colin D. Ellis:     And then, as the project manager, you're not micromanaging them but you're making sure that, in line with their personality, you're managing that person on a day-to-day basis. Someone like me, extrovert, gets distracted really, really easily, or used to get distracted really, really easily, I would need someone on my shoulder going, “Colin, have you remember? Colin, have you remember?” Whereas someone who's not me, who's the opposite of me, you can kinda set and forget. Give them a task on Monday and just let them get on with it, maybe check in on Wednesday morning and go, “You okay with that?”

Colin D. Ellis:     So I think it's key that they learn everybody's personality and then create an environment, and crucially, Brett, the first person that doesn't deliver to expectation has to be held to account. This is the bit that most project managers fear, because we think it's all lovey-dovey nicey-nicey, and to get the job done you really have to put the rocket behind some people.

Colin D. Ellis:     You can do this in a high-EQ way, I'm certainly not suggesting that for one minute you're abusive, you're aggressive, none of those things, you don't do any of that. But you can make sure that people understand what they're in for and then drive them to do that. And then if they don't do it, well there's usually a process to follow, but usually it never gets that far.

Brett Harned:       Are there any things that you've done, or you've found have been particularly helpful when trying to right that ship, so to speak?

Colin D. Ellis:     Well sometimes you have to sink it.

Brett Harned:       Good point.

Colin D. Ellis:     It sounds counterproductive, but sometimes you have to draw a line and say, “Hey listen, everything that we're doing right now isn't working except for this one thing. So we're gonna keep that and we're gonna discard everything else.” And often when I've worked with big project management teams or big programs, I did one here in Australia just before Christmas, we wrote down everything that was good and everything that could be improved.

Colin D. Ellis:     Things that were good, there were about two. Things that could be improved, there were about 30. I'm like, “Okay, well let's just agree that everything that's gone before is an absolute bag of ... whatever. And let's work together to fix it, but with the emphasis on working together.”

Colin D. Ellis:     So what I find is there's a dose of honesty that's required. There's some humor as well, I think looking back on my career as a project manager, I think that was the thing that I was blessed to have, is I was able to take some of the sting out of some of those situations. So just remind people that we're here to create something that we're all proud to be a part of, but also that takes the organization forward. That will mean us being slightly uncomfortable at times, and pushing each other to succeed.

Colin D. Ellis:     So I think a little bit of that honesty, and then some group accountability, I think everybody sees the project manager as having this complete and utter responsibility for everything. If you can get the group at the start to agree that we're all in this together and what the project manager will do is remind us of what needs to be done and when, if that's the way that you're gonna do it, then at least you start off on the right foot.

Brett Harned:       I love it. I think the way that you and I talk and think about project management is very, very similar. I wanna talk a minute about hiring because I constantly hear how difficult it is for people to hire good PMs. And often I'll hear people say, “I can look at a project plan, I can look at an estimate they've done, but what I really wanna make sure is that we've got a good cultural fit,” that's most important for them.

Brett Harned:       But I'm always interested to know how people actually feel like they can get a good grasp of cultural fit in the interview process, and I'm wondering if there are any tactics that you might recommend.

Colin D. Ellis:     Yeah, sure. It's something I hear a lot too, how do we ensure for culture fit, I'm always like, “Well, you gotta define your culture to start.” Otherwise, you've got no chance, you've got no chance of hiring for cultural fit. What you're doing is using a buzz phrase that you've heard somebody else use and you think is ... So if you haven't spent two days, particularly for big pieces of work, it takes two days to define your culture.

Colin D. Ellis:     One of the things that me and my team do is we produce a Culture Deck, like Netflix, even just for projects. If you haven't done that, then you can't hire for culture fit, you're hiring for what you believe that culture is. So you've gotta do some work upfront to understand within your team what kind of mix of personalities have you got, what mix of skills have you got, what mix of behaviors do you have, and what is it that's really, really missing.

Colin D. Ellis:     I've worked with one PMO team, they were supporting a big program worth I think it was a billion and a half dollars. They had a PMO team of about 30 people, and they were all the same personality. So what you got, Brett, was this passive-aggressive, everything by email ... They were a good group of people, individually they were really, really nice, but they were all the same. So what was missing was someone really action-oriented to really get stuff done and tell them that the way that they were behaving wasn't good enough. Because none of those people could do it.

Colin D. Ellis:     One of the tactics that I used to use is firstly we always took the time to build the team, we always took the time to write it down. We agreed a bit of a charter. A charter for most people has become a bit of a form-filling exercise rather than a two-day workshop that should be fun. It should be fun to do. But the charter would then describe our team culture, and then I would go in knowing what kinds of personalities I had within the team, what was missing, do I need an action person, do I need a social person, I was usually the most social person in the team, and so it needed someone else. That's what you look for when you interview.

Colin D. Ellis:     I did a big finance system project, I was head of projects for a large government organization, and we needed someone to head up this finance systems project. The CFO was a real detail guy, so I needed a real detail project manager, so we went into the hiring process knowing I needed someone who was good with facts, with figures, with numbers, who had an answer almost for every single financial question. And that's what we looked for. We weren't looking for someone who was overly enthusiastic and excited and positive. They had all of those qualities, but their primary strength was on facts and figures, and that worked well.

Brett Harned:       Interesting. All right, last question. The name of our show is Time Limit, as you know, and it kind of implies this idea that we're all working with limited time to get things done, get quality work done. I think it's something that we all face in some way, we're all limited in how much time we can spend on things, especially in a situation where you're really focused on getting a project done, and you have to deal with a budget, and meeting goals, and making stakeholders happy, and making sure that your team is meeting deadlines.

Brett Harned:       At the same time, you're concerned with culture, you're concerned as a project manager, you're concerned with morale, you're concerned that people are positive and people are feeling good about, not only the work that they're producing, but the relationships that they're working on with their coworkers.

Brett Harned:       So I'm wondering, do you have any tips for building better culture when you've got serious constraints on your time, when there isn't time to do two-day workshops, and sit down and think about what everyone's there to do? If you're really just having to jump in and you're always in the thick of a project, what do you do?

Colin D. Ellis:     You still take time out at the start, Brett. I think there's this misconception that we just need to get started, time is so tight that we just need to get started. But the effort that you put into conversations at the start, to organize people and yourselves, will never, ever be wasted. There was one survey that showed that only nine percent of organizations do planning really, really well. The fact of the matter is you're still gonna have to put the effort in to do some kind of planning. So it's still better to do it at the start than have to firefight all the way through.

Colin D. Ellis:     In our time ... Time is the most precious commodity that we have. You have to look at yourself, are you being the most productive person that you can be? Instagram, save it for lunchtime or your travel to and from work, except if you're driving in which case wait till you get home. Are you being the most productive version of yourself? Then sit down, have a conversation with everybody at the start of every day to make sure that they're all being the most productive versions of themselves too. Because, make no mistake, there's enough time to get the work done, we're just not usually using it productively enough.

Brett Harned:       Yes, I completely agree. I am constantly telling project managers, “If you spend time early on to properly estimate and plan and set expectations, you're gonna save yourself tons of time later down the road. It might not feel that way when you're spending that time early on, but you're gonna be happy that you did.”

Colin D. Ellis:     Yeah, that's right. Jason Fox said in his book Game Changer, he said, “Planning only gets in the way of work if it's done really badly.”

Brett Harned:       That's so true, that's a good one, that's a really good one. Well, Colin, thank you so much for joining me today on Time Limit. Any final words of wisdom or things you'd like to share with our listeners?

Colin D. Ellis:     Yeah, sure. As I say all the time, project management, when done well, can change the world. And I'd urge project managers out there to be the future organizations and hold yourself as a role model for other people to follow. Because, by God, we need them right now.

Brett Harned:       Love it, thank you so much, Colin.

Colin D. Ellis:     Thanks, Brett.

Brett Harned:       Okay, that's all we have, folks. Colin and I probably could have talked for hours, but I hope you got something great out of what we did discuss. Thanks so much for listening. We'll be talking about more topics like this to help you make the most of your limited time. If you're looking for more resources on project management, check out teamgantt.com where we offer free classes, templates, and resources in addition to our popular and easy-to-use project planning and management tool. And of course, don't forget to subscribe and rate the show on iTunes, and check out our show notes for more information about Colin and his work, and how you can get in touch with him. Thanks.

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